As the countdown continues toward the start of the 2019-20 college basketball season on Nov. 5, ESPN.com's panel of experts is making its predictions. After looking at the ACC, Big East, the American, the Pac-12 and Mid-Majors, we move on to the Big 12, where Kansas is not the reigning champ for the first time in more than a decade -- but remains the league's most scrutinized program in more ways than one.
With all due respect to Texas Tech and reigning Big 12 co-champ Kansas State, the No. 1 story in the Big 12 until further notice is the Kansas Jayhawks. Whether off the court or on, what are your biggest concerns about Bill Self's program?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: Well, at Big 12 media day in Kansas City on Wednesday, I watched Devon Dotson walk into the Sprint Center with a boot on his right foot after tweaking an ankle earlier this week. Udoka Azubuike has torn the same ligament in his right and left hands, both season-ending injuries, in the past three years.
The NCAA drama won't matter to Kansas, which has always been a target on opposing floors. In 2013, an angry fan ran toward Bill Self and acted as if he wanted to throw a punch before police officers grabbed him. A few nasty signs and money guns won't bother this team.
But you have to be concerned about health. Azubuike has had an unlucky stretch. It can't lose Dotson. If it can avoid the injury bug in 2019-2020, Kansas should win the Big 12 and compete for a national title. That will eventually become the main narrative this year, not an NCAA investigation that might not be completed for months, if not years, depending on the legal battle.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: To me, it's all off the court. I have Kansas as the preseason No. 2 team in the country, and I think the Jayhawks are going to be a Final Four contender all season. Dotson and Azubuike might be the two best players in the league, and the spring brought plenty of depth for Bill Self.
But off the court, there are serious issues. The NCAA charged Kansas with lack of institutional control and Self with head coach responsibility violations. There are five Level I violations in the notice of allegations from last month. Level I violations put a lot of consequences on the table, from a show cause or suspension for Self to a postseason ban. It's unlikely to actually impact the team this season -- aside from the distractions element -- since any hearings will ultimately be held after the season ends, but that's the biggest concern about the program.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: The Jayhawks will be fine on the court. Azubuike is back, the 2s will go in, space will be created on the perimeter for Ochai Agbaji and Dotson, the defense will trend better, etc. Off the court, however, there's more cause for concern.
People love to say the NCAA won't touch blue-chip programs, and, well, that's the way it did work for North Carolina. Then again, winning a national title is pretty blue chip, and former UConn head coach Kevin Ollie has his own tale to tell about the Committee on Infractions. Lack of institutional control is a weighty charge against KU. Unless Adidas was smart enough to -- allegedly and additionally -- spread payments around to random undergraduate men and women in Lawrence, UNC's "too-fraudulent-to-penalize" defense (where non-athletes were found to be taking the same sham courses as athletes) will be null and void here. The Jayhawks will need a different line of defense to achieve the same outcome.
This is the second straight year where Chris Beard is dealing with significant roster changes at Texas Tech. Last season, he made his doubters look silly by engineering the best season in program history. Do you really think a team that lost Jarrett Culver, Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens can win this league again? What's your national ceiling for the Red Raiders?
Borzello: We're really doubting Chris Beard? A year ago, Texas Tech entered the season after losing Zhaire Smith, Keenan Evans and two other starters. Even thinking the Red Raiders could win the league despite those personnel losses would have been asinine (especially when taking into account that Kansas had won 14 in a row before last season), but now we've seen Beard do it. We've seen him completely turn over a roster with a mix of freshmen and transfers and not miss a beat in Lubbock.
So can he do it again? Given that I have the Red Raiders finishing second behind Kansas, I wouldn't be shocked. The defense is going to be a staple, just as it's been the past two years when Tech finished No. 4 and No. 1 nationally in defensive efficiency. So then it comes down to whether there's another Smith or Evans or Culver in the pipeline. Davide Moretti and Kyler Edwards are solid returnees in the backcourt, while graduate transfers Chris Clarke and TJ Holyfield should start immediately, and freshman Tyreek Smith fits Beard's system perfectly.
But the difference-maker is going to be Jahmius Ramsey, the highest-ranked recruit in school history. Ramsey is an outstanding two-way player and could be the best freshman in the league. If that happens, Tech will be back in the mix once again.
Gasaway: Texas Tech can win this league again ... if another Jarrett Culver emerges from this current roster. But that is a big if. Let's give Beard the respect due a coach who comes within 14 seconds of a national title and say this defense will again be excellent. My question is, will the Red Raiders again shoot significantly better than the Big 12 average from the field (better than any team in the league) in conference play? Put it this way, in their leagues last season, Texas Tech and Virginia both played lock-down defense and shot with a high degree of accuracy. My question with this year's team in Lubbock concerns only the latter.
Medcalf: Texas Tech can compete for the title again. I actually think Chris Beard prefers this. Losing the bulk of his starting rotation from a national runner-up? No. But he thrives on new pieces and change. As a junior college and Division II coach, he had to hit the reset button often. He had multiple transfers on the Little Rock squad that won 30 games and beat Purdue in the first round of the 2016 NCAA tournament. I think he'll find his guys.
Chris Clarke and TJ Holyfield will help. Jahmius Ramsey is a star. Beard has produced elite defensive teams. I think Davide Moretti will pick up where he left off as a reliable scorer in the NCAA tournament.
This isn't a league of guarantees. A healthy Kansas is a powerhouse. But Baylor needs Tristan Clark to get confident again after the season-ending knee injury. Shaka Smart has pieces and a lot to prove. Tyrese Haliburton is a potential star and NBA first-round pick at Iowa State if he can handle his new role. Just a lot of unknowns. I think that helps Texas Tech's cause too. I also think Chris Beard is a damn good coach. I expect good things again.
Shaka Smart is going to be one of college basketball's most scrutinized coaches this season in what could be his final chance to deliver on the promise that followed him to Texas in 2015. What would you identify as the biggest culprit in Smart's inability to elevate the Longhorns nationally? Do you think he'll get there in 2019-20?
Medcalf: He just hasn't been good enough.
He has had a first-round NBA draft pick in each of the past three seasons. He's in a league that features a squad that Chris Beard just turned into a national title contender from Lubbock, Texas, and a Baylor team that, at one point last season, had four projected starters sidelined by injuries and still managed to finish in the league's top tier and win an NCAA tournament game. Smart has faced adversity with transfers and Andrew Jones' battle with cancer. But I know Smart hasn't fulfilled his own personal expectations.
I think he has another NCAA tournament team this year. I think the Longhorns can finish with a top-three or top-four slot in the Big 12. But we've had the same thought in the past. Crucial year for Smart. He just has to get the job done.
Gasaway: I'm not saying I believe in the hoops gods and that Smart is still paying them back for that amazing five-win run to the 2011 Final Four with No. 11-seeded VCU ... wait, I guess that's exactly what I'm saying. In his time in Austin, Smart has lost two games in the NCAA tournament's round of 64 that came down to the last possession of regulation. Then came last season and possibly his best Texas team yet -- and the Longhorns missed the tournament entirely (but did win the NIT). I'm bullish on UT for 2020 -- the team was better than people realized last season and brings back more experience than the Big 12 average -- so, yes, I think he'll get there.
Borzello: The Longhorns have landed 17 ESPN 100 prospects over five recruiting classes heading into the season, a group that includes first-round NBA draft picks Mohamed Bamba, Jarrett Allen and Jaxson Hayes. Outside of a dreadful 2016-17 season, Texas has consistently been a top-40 team nationally, but the program had higher hopes when it replaced Rick Barnes with Smart in 2015. And this could be his last chance to make it happen in Austin, as he enters the season squarely on the hot seat.
With all that said, I think Texas makes the NCAA tournament this season and Smart gets more time with the Longhorns. They have a really good perimeter group, two impact freshmen up front and also got an emotional boost with the return of Andrew Jones.
In a testament to the quality of the Big 12, an Oklahoma team that was 7-11 and tied for seventh in the league comfortably reached the NCAA tournament last season ... and won a game. Of those you've picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big 12 in 2019-20, which team do you think has the best chance to catch fire in March?
Gasaway: Give it up for Oklahoma State, everybody, returning more of its possession minutes from last season than any other Big 12 roster. This defense can do fine at forcing misses (Yor Anei will help there), assuming opponents just commit turnovers at an average rate. Lindy Waters III is a career 42% 3-point shooter. Plus the Cowboys already take pretty good care of the ball. For a team that I'm picking to finish sixth, there's a lot here to like. Chalk that entire previous sentence up to a strong Big 12.
Borzello: There's not a truly bad team in the Big 12. Of the teams in the bottom half, West Virginia is getting the most preseason hype, but I'm with John on Oklahoma State. I picked the Cowboys to finish at the top of the bottom half, so I guess it makes sense.
Mike Boynton's program brings back all five starters from a team that, despite finishing 12-20, did beat LSU, Texas, TCU, Baylor and Memphis last season. Cameron McGriff, Thomas Dziagwa and Waters are all seniors, and Isaac Likekele has a year under his belt at the point. Some of the reason for optimism comes from an underrated recruiting class, including four-star guard Marcus Watson and former Texas A&M commit Chris Harris. The Cowboys should be vastly improved.
Medcalf: Make that three. It has to be Oklahoma State based on what the Cowboys return this season. I also think Boynton did what any new coach in his position has to do and shifted the culture. That's a cliché. But he kicked five guys off the team in two years. At Big 12 media day, Boynton said he did it to "protect" the integrity of the program. Without the off-court drama, Oklahoma State can focus on its potential to exceed expectations in a league with a lot of question marks.
With last year's turbulence, Boynton led his team to wins over LSU and Texas and suffered an overtime loss to Texas Tech in late February, just as the latter was becoming a serious threat in the Big 12 and beyond. I think Oklahoma State will make great strides this year.
Big 12 2019-20 predicted order of finish
Big 12 2019-20 superlatives
Player of the Year
Medcalf: Tristan Clark, Baylor
Borzello: Devon Dotson, Kansas
Gasaway: Tristan Clark, Baylor
Newcomer of the Year